“Based on the peer-reviewed papers I have been citing for more than a decade, and the supporting papers that have been published more recently, I cannot imagine it will take centuries to achieve 5 or 6 degrees of planetary heating. In addition, because the ongoing and projected rates of environmental change are so severe, I cannot imagine we have centuries or even decades ahead with habitat for humans. If by centuries you mean days, then we have plenty of time remaining. However, the time for adaptation to occur is long behind us.”—Dr. Guy McPherson
By Dr. Guy McPherson
BELLOWS FALLS Vermont—(Hubris)—1 June 2023—As every ecologist knows, and apparently very few other people, the rate of environmental change is among the most important factors controlling the continued survival of individuals, populations, and species. If the environment occupied by an individual or a species changes, then the individual or the species must change. Evolution by natural selection is typically a relatively slow process, requiring at least one generation and usually many generations to ensure adaptation. For species such as Homo sapiens, our ability to procreate comes at a relatively late age, thereby guaranteeing a minimum of a few decades for adaptation to occur.
Unfortunately, the ongoing and projected rates of environmental change far outstrip the ability of our species to adapt. Indeed, Strona and Bradshaw pointed out in their 13 November 2018 paper, published in the renowned and scientifically conservative journal, Scientific Reports, the ongoing rate of environmental change exceeds the ability of any life on Earth to keep up.
Their paper is titled, “Co-extinctions annihilate planetary life during extreme environmental change.”
The extreme environmental change to which the paper refers is 5 to 6 degrees C above the 1750 baseline within a few centuries. Based on the peer-reviewed papers I have been citing for more than a decade, and the supporting papers that have been published more recently, I cannot imagine it will take centuries to achieve 5 or 6 degrees of planetary heating. In addition, because the ongoing and projected rates of environmental change are so severe, I cannot imagine we have centuries or even decades ahead with habitat for humans.
If by centuries you mean days, then we have plenty of time remaining. However, the time for adaptation to occur is long behind us.
A misquote attributed to Charles Darwin is relevant here, after which I will proceed to more-recent information. Darwin’s commonly cited misquote comes from his book, On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. It goes like this: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Nicholas J. Matzke, of the Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, worked out the history of this misquote. His source includes the writings of Leon C. Megginson, Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. The quote started out as a paraphrase Megginson wrote in 1963 which goes like this: “According to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
This accurate statement is from Megginson’s peer-reviewed paper Lessons from Europe for American Business. It was published in Southwestern Social Science Quarterly in June of 1963. You can find his paraphrase of Darwin on page four of the issue, the second page of Megginson’s paper. I repeat: “According to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
The point, which is still valid despite the misquote, is that the rate of environmental change is tremendously important for the continued survival of individuals and species. How are we doing so far on that front, and what does the future hold?
I’ll start with the most conservative of sources, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 8 October 2018 report, Global Warming of 1.5 degrees. In this report, the IPCC includes this line: “These global-level rates of human-driven change far exceed the rates of change driven by geophysical or biosphere forces that have altered the Earth System trajectory in the past” (e.g., Summerhayes, 2015; Foster et al., 2017); even abrupt geophysical events do not approach current rates of human-driven change.” In other words, the abrupt rate of planetary overheating is the fastest known to occur in planetary history.
The IPCC is scientifically conservative. This fact was indicated by the scientifically conservative, peer-reviewed journal BioScience in its March 2019 issue. The paper in BioScience was authored by Herrando-Pérez and three other scholars and is titled, Statistical Language Backs Conservatism in Climate-Change Assessments. The abstract includes this line: “We found that the tone of the IPCC’s probabilistic language is remarkably conservative (mean confidence is medium, and mean likelihood is 66 percent–100 percent or 0–33 percent), and emanates from the IPCC recommendations themselves, complexity of climate research, and exposure to politically motivated debates.”
As I have pointed out frequently in this space, vertebrates cannot keep up with the ongoing and projected rates of environmental change. This finding goes back to a paper published in the peer-reviewed Ecology Letters authored by Quintero and Wiens published on 26 June 2013. The paper is titled, “Rates of projected climate change dramatically exceed past rates of climatic niche evolution among vertebrate species.” The paper indicates that the projected rates of environmental change would require rates of niche evolution that are 10,000 times faster than rates typically observed among species. In other words, the stunningly slow rate-of-change projected by reports published before 2013 still outstrips the ability of vertebrates to adapt. Mammals cannot keep up, either, as reported in the prestigious peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with a paper by Matt Davis and two other scholars published on 15 October 2018.
Vertebrates cannot keep up with ongoing and projected rates of environmental change. Mammals cannot keep up, either. Both of these findings are based on scientifically conservative sources. As vertebrate mammals, Homo sapiens therefore falls into two broad categories labeled “can’t keep up.”
According to a peer-reviewed, open-access paper published in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences published on 11 January 2023, “In 2022, the world’s oceans, as given by ocean heat content, were again the hottest in the historical record and exceeded the previous 2021 record maximum.” The paper was written by Lijing Cheng and 24 other scholars and is titled, “Another Year of Record Heat for the Oceans.” It provides the latest indication that the rapid release of heat and greenhouse gases associated with the next El Niño Southern Oscillation bodes poorly for the continuation of habitat for humans.
So, then: What does the future hold? As I have reluctantly pointed out frequently in this space, the future looks bleak for Homo sapiens and all other life on Earth.
I have occasionally mentioned the importance of ice floating on the Arctic Ocean. Earth has retained this ice for a very long time. In fact, according to a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, “Humans have only ever lived in a world topped by ice.” That’s the lead sentence in the final paragraph of a paper written by University of Connecticut professor Mark C. Urban. Urban is director of the Center of Biological Risk and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. In this short paper, he writes: “By reflecting sunlight, Arctic ice acts as Earth’s air conditioner. Once dark water replaces brilliant ice, Earth could warm substantially, equivalent to the warming triggered by the additional release of a trillion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ice also determines who gets rain. Loss of Arctic sea ice can make it rain in Spain, dry out Scandinavian hydropower, and set California ablaze.”
A trillion tons of carbon dioxide sounds like a lot. In fact, Earth’s atmosphere currently holds 36.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide. An additional trillion tons is equivalent to more than 25 years’ worth of emissions. Allow me to relay the take-home line from Urban’s short essay: “By reflecting sunlight, Arctic ice acts as Earth’s air conditioner. Once dark water replaces brilliant ice, Earth could warm substantially, equivalent to the warming triggered by the additional release of a trillion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” Imagine more than 25 years’ worth of warming shortly after the Arctic ice is gone.
Bear in mind that Harvard University professor of atmospheric science James Anderson was quoted in Forbes on January 15th, 2018: “The chance there will be permanent ice in the Arctic after 2022 is essentially zero.” Professor Jennifer MacKinnon of the University of California-San Diego and the Scripps Institution also expects an ice-free Arctic Ocean this year. She was quoted by CBS News on April 23rd, 2021 upon release of a peer-reviewed paper she lead-authored in Nature Communications.
In other words, based on predictions from two informed professors, we can expect an ice-free Arctic Ocean this September. And now for the really good news: according to the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School’s 6-month ensemble forecast released on 14 April of this year, there will be about 5 million square kilometers of ice floating on the Arctic Ocean in late September 2023 (click on ‘Extent’ directly beneath the graph).
This is hardly a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” There is little doubt an ice-free Arctic Ocean lies in our near future. There is little doubt an ice-free Arctic Ocean will produce the worst of all possible outcomes for life on Earth. However, we are essentially guaranteed another year with habitat for human animals on this most wondrous of planets. If that’s not a good reason to squeeze all the goodness, even the seemingly undesirable pieces of goodness, out of every single day, then I don’t know what is.
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